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Education and Illiteracy in South Africa

Education and illiteracy in South Africa

A recent nationwide literacy and numeracy assessment in primary schools in South Africa revealed a disturbing truth. The majority of Grade 3 and Grade 6 students in the country cannot read and count. In Gauteng, almost 70% of the province’s Grade 3 pupils were found to be illiterate. This begs the question: What has the government been doing since 1994?

Earlier this year, Basic Education minister Angie Motshekga proudly donned a brilliant grin when president Jacob Zuma announced the improvement in the Matric pass rate as part of his annual State of the Nation address. When presented with the results of the recent assessment, she described them as very sad. Very sad, indeed.

Contrary to the Department of Education’s belief, one does not need to be a rocket scientist powered by millions of assessment tests to figure out what is going on. One does, however, need to transplant one’s ample behind from the ivory tower and actually visit a school or two. Such visits would reveal some basic, glaring facts:

  1. Teachers struggle to maintain their motivation levels;
  2. Student discipline and attendance is appalling;
  3. Parental involvement is far from what it should be;
  4. Principals and teachers are overwhelmed with departmental admin;
  5. There is no concrete plan that is committed to by all stakeholders – the system is plagued by ad-hoc requests and regular goal-post changes

If there is any further proof required that South Africa has lost another generation with outcome based education, this latest study is it. The Western Cape scored the highest in terms of performance in literacy and numeracy with a tally of a very sad 43%. Mpumalanga fared less well and sits at about a very sad 19%.

So, what is the way forward?

Firstly, South African education needs to get the basics right. Educators need an annual plan that does not keep changing every time an ample bottom in the Department lifts a cheek to pass some wind. Gathering reams of statistics from teachers will not improve literacy – increasing quality teacher time with students is likely to do a better job of that.

Admin is inevitable, and obviously some reporting is necessary, but it needs to be scheduled and streamlined, which it currently is not.

Secondly, the Department of Education should be focused on improving teacher quality and on metrics that count. Fudging Matric pass rate statistics annually may make certain individuals look good but it clearly does not measure knowledge, literacy or numeracy currently.

Thirdly, and this is by no means an easy task, government needs to drive a change agenda to build the mental link between education and prosperity. Such links exist in developing powerhouses like India and they contribute hugely to their success and growth. This in Wonkie’s opinion, is one of the key areas where the post-apartheid government has failed miserably to date. Until the value of education becomes ingrained in South African culture, the mentality of entitlement without effort will prevail.

Leave YOUR THOUGHTS on Basic Education in South Africa.


By Pratish Mistry

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